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Emojimania: What Emojis Mean for Communication and Language

News & Features | April 6, 2015

In 1971 Charles K. Bliss debuted the eponymous Blissymbolics System, hoping to change the ways humans communicate. He wanted to create an international language based on visual symbols that could be used by people of all backgrounds, ages, and levels of ability. The Blissymbolics system consists of a series of carefully crafted ideograms and pictograms: it does not have a spoken component. Though currently used by people with severe speech and physical impairments in over 33 countries, the language did not reach widespread international success in the way it was intended to. Blissymbols may not be universally recognized and used as a global language, but a different set of symbols is currently altering communication worldwide: emojis.

Emojis illustrate how quickly a moment of design can become a worldwide phenomenon. They are successful on an aesthetic level and a linguistic level—emojis contribute something to both verbal and nonverbal communication. These simple symbols have become a beloved and widespread presence in not only in technologically based communication but also the outside world. They are simple, fluid, and visually appealing, which enables their use in endless situations and contexts. But this simplicity also means a lack of inclusion and nuance; emojis have been criticized for their lack of diversity and stereotypical portrayals of people.

The colorful, smiley-face based set of symbols was first invented in the late 1990s by Shigetaka Kurita at the Japanese communication company NTT Docomo. Originally a small group of hand-drawn smiley faces meant to appeal to teens, emojis quickly gained popularity with the general population of smartphone users. By 2007 emojis were used by all Japanese telecom companies and Apple felt compelled to include them on the iPhone for Japanese consumers. Emojis were then encoded into Unicode, meaning they fit a global programming standard and can be read from iPhones to Androids to Facebook and beyond. Not everyone has access to a smartphone, but with Unicode, emojis are more available than most apps. Today they’re everywhere.

In a survey of Tufts students conducted by the Tufts Observer, 47 percent of respondents reported that they used one or more emojis in up to 25 percent of their text-based communication. 20 percent of respondents reported that they used one or more emojis in up to 75 percent of their text communication. According to the Pew Research Center , American cell phone owners between ages 18 and 24 send and receive an average of 109.5 text messages per day. Add in Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other messaging applications, and there are almost infinite emoji opportunities.

The versatility of emojis’ meanings is one huge reason for their popularity. The same emojis mean different things to different people; for example, one survey respondent said the dancing ladies emoji signified “I’m about to get drunk,” while another said it meant “I’m dancing away from a situation.” The simplicity of emoji design means that there is a lot of room for interpretation and context-based adaptations, which makes them applicable in many situations. They become part of the user’s lexicon without needing rigid definitions.

Furthermore, emojis enhance technological communication, adding elements present in face-to-face communication that are often lacking from written conversations. They can be used to express emotion that cannot be articulated solely in words and alter the tone of messages, by making them more lighthearted or adding or removing sarcasm. “It’s so satisfying when you have an emoji that perfectly represents an idea, emotion, or sentiment that you are trying to convey,” a survey respondent said. Emojis seem to contribute an element of humanness that can be lost in screen-to-screen messaging. This makes sense when we consider that communication is about not only words but also hand gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Because of emojis’ versatile meanings and ability to communicate, their functions are endless. They can become inside jokes, puns, and symbolic translations of snippets of pop culture (see Emoji Dick, the fully-emoji version of Moby Dick ). Simply put, they make communication more creative and more fun.

As symbols go, emojis are uniquely beloved; as such, they enjoy substantial representation in the world outside of technological devices. The popular Instagram hashtag #emojisinthewild features photos of people and objects that resemble the Unicode originals. Emojis were designed to mirror aspects of life, but we are beginning to mirror emojis— several Tufts students reported having dressed up as emojis for Halloween or for an emoji-themed costume party. One student has emoji tattoo aspirations—if realized, the student will join the likes of Drake, Miley Cyrus and NBA forward Mike Scott. Shigetaka Kurita most likely never thought his Cat with Heart Eyes would soon be permanently etched onto celebrities, but perhaps he didn’t understand just how beloved these symbols would become.

Dr. Anne Mahoney, a historical linguist and professor at Tufts, explained that emojis are ubiquitous in our communication, but in very specific ways. She said that emojis work as as either rebuses—allusional devices that use pictures to represent words or parts of words—or adverbs. They are rebuses when people replace nouns with pictures, either of the objects themselves or of objects that sound like the word. “This is not fundamentally different from writing ‘c u l8r,’ just cuter,” said Mahoney. They are adverbs when users “include a picture representing [their] mental state, whether that’s a face with a suitable expression, a book representing all the work [they] should be doing, a theater mask indicating [they’ve] just been cast in a play and [are] delighted, or whatever else,” Mahoney said. These uses allow emojis to immediately make sense when added to any conversation They express ideas either outside of language or within a mutually understood language.

Emojis bypass the usual need for vocabulary and syntax, so they can just as readily be applied to Japanese as they are to English or any other language. Emojis can be mutually understood immediately in a way no language today can be. At Tufts, 36 percent of survey respondents said they would probably be able to have a conversation solely in emojis. Another 27 percent said they would definitely be able to conduct an emoji-only conversation. Emojis are even starting to creep off our keyboards and into our mouths, replacing words in our native languages. About half of Tufts students surveyed reported they reference emojis in their own face-to-face conversations, saying “cha cha dancing lady” or “moon face” in reference to something they feel can be better conveyed by emoji. Many act out the sassy hand positioning of the concierge lady or the “see no evil” monkey. Emoji is not currently a language, but perhaps it is not far from one.

There have been multiple historical examples of languages that were designed. In the late 1800s linguist L. L. Zamenhof took vocabulary from the romance languages, crafted a completely regularized grammar, and created Esperanto. Esperanto was meant to bring people together to act as an international lingua franca (a language used to facilitate communication between people who do not share a native language) for cross-cultural communication that didn’t privilege one native language over the other. Esperanto never fully caught on, but there is an Esperanto version of Wikipedia for the curious. (Though designed for fantasy worlds, J.R.R. Tolkein’s Elvish and the Klingon language of Star Trek are similarly languages crafted for a specific need.)

Emojis are not likely to join the ranks of full-fledged languages, but their simplicity and fluidity allow them to act as a sort of international lingua franca the way the creators of Blissymbols and Esperanto hoped their languages would be.

But having a new global means of communication with only 722 symbols raises many further questions. There are responsibilities inherent in designing something so integral to communication. Language shapes the way we think, so what is included or excluded from a language dictates more than phrasing—it has broader implications upon representation, reality, and identity. For example, the indigenous Inuit people of Baffin Island, Canada use the same word to mean both “in the distant past” and “in the distant future.” The indigenous Guugu Ymithirr language of northern Australia does not have words for left or right; instead, spatial information is always conveyed using the cardinal directions of north, west, south, or east. Most native English speakers cannot consistently point north any more than most native Guugu Ymithirr speakers could consistently point left. This potentially reflects Guugu Ymithirr speakers’ culture and how it is less egocentric than English-speaking ones.

There are many concepts that are excluded from one language or another, and these exclusions necessarily come to reflect or even define part of the culture. There is no Greek word for privacy, which may reflect the lack of emphasis of this concept in Greek culture. There is no English word for saudade, a Portuguese concept describing many things, including a melancholy for something that may not have yet happened, and for many many more concepts.

Emoji, the almost-language, has an incredible number of holes. When asked what they would add to the emoji collection, Tufts students suggested a t-rex, cheese, an avocado, a hand giving the middle finger, a unicorn, a waffle, and Chewbacca. For the most part, these additions would serve simple purposes—they might make it easier to talk about lunch or respond playfully to a joke made at one’s expense. But an overwhelming percentage of students spoke of a need for emojis of color and queer emojis, calling for representation of groups that are often not represented in the world outside of emojis as well. This is an important addition to and omission from the emoji set. Currently, the few emojis of color present represent racialized stereotypes, such as an Indian man in a turban and a Chinese man with a traditional hat. The simplicity of emojis is an incredible facilitator of communication, but it is also hugely problematic. As comedian Sasheer Zamata explained on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” “Unicode, the company that creates emojis, thought that instead of one black person we needed two different kinds of dragons, nine different cat faces, three generations of a white family, and all the hands are white too. Even the black power fist is white!” If emoji is to become the true global lingua franca, it needs to be inclusive and portray the outside world accurately.

There has been a lot of pushback on the limited emoji vocabulary, and Apple is set to release a new emoji keyboard with its next update. Soon users will be able to pick from a series of skintones for the human emojis, and choose from a host of new symbols including some that portray same-sex couples. Though not perfection, these improvements are immense. This is the beauty of a designed language—it can be designed to be better.

Emojis have taken over the world with their versatility and visual appeal, leaving their mark on our text messages, Herman Melville’s magnum opus, and Drake’s forearm. But their heightened popularity means they have a heightened role in representing our society and reality. With this comes the responsibility for their creators to be thoughtful, intentional, and inclusive in their design.  In doing that, they will ensure that their next symbols will be even better—more versatile, more comprehensive, and more fun.